Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Blogging Black, White, Red and Green

Some of my friends (mainly the handful of readers of this blog!) have asked me why I am not blogging on the violence that has rocked our beloved Kenya since the fateful election fiasco. I find it impossible and frankly out of question to do so, given that I am not currently living in the country. What can I contribute when I am not there to fill my lungs with the rusty smell of dried blood; or to witness the glistening edge of a panga held high and tight in mid air under the hot sun, by the owner of fixed, glazed, determined eyes; or to look into the sad beady eyes of an orphaned child or a parent banished to being flooded with the razor-sharp cutting pangs of grief that inevitably come with mourning a child; or to feel the vibrations of the earth under me, not of the habitual tremors but of Kenyans, running for their lives.

Who am I to have an opinion from a safe, detached, albeit technologically shortened distance? Simply put, I do not qualify.

Like many other Kenyans in the Diaspora, I am living turbulent Kenya virtually – through blogs, online news articles, YouTube videos and regular candid conversations with family and friends. The violence broke out towards the end of my month-long sunny sabbatical in Kenya. I did not feel ready to leave, at a time that my beloved Kenya was going through such a momentous and tormentous time. I could feel it. We all could. A time that would be marked in the pages of our history with innocent blood and analysed by scholars and wananchi alike for eons to come. It was make or break time for this thing called Kenya, as Binyavanga Wainaina simply but effectively coined it. The layer upon layer of injustices, frustrations and suppressed anger that had been accumulating over the years and forming a palpable mound under our national carpet could no longer be quietly concealed. Or ignored. Or viewed through the rose-tinted lenses of 6% economic growth. The seams had burst at the edges and we watched, mouths agape in horror, as the unspeakable propagated throughout the land like malignant tumour cells turning against the body that nourishes them. People were dying. Women and girls were being raped. Homes were being torched. And more.

But how could I stay on in Kenya and risk losing my academic job in London, my livelihood, my career?

My sabbatical was over and I had a rendezvous with KQ to airlift me out of the dark depths of pandemonium and despair. Non-stop to destination: London. I lied to myself that the spate of violence and atrocities would soon come to an end. Surely it was only a matter of time. After all, Kenyans are self-proclaimed and objectively labelled peace-lovers, and have been an oasis of hope and an example not only to our neighbours but sub-Saharan Africa at large. Surely come February we would be talking of nation-building and IPOs once again.

Back at work and the guilt started to creep in. At first it came as occasional nudges as I spent significant chunks of my working day online, reading anything and everything that I could get my mouse to click onto. And then it wound its way. Gently, quietly meandering through me like a slithering snake and slowly eating in like caustic acid until it found a comfortable place at the core of my being. It had consumed me. Mentally, spiritually, emotionally. Why did I leave in the first place? I walked the “streets paved with gold” with a blank, empty and disconnected gaze. Distracted and consumed by my disorderly thoughts. Physically I was in London, but my heart was still in Kenya. With time I started to become somewhat detached, despite continuing to immerse myself in the on-goings, but now with a less than frantic fervour. Actually it wasn't immersion. It was more like floating. Suspended at the interface between two distinct worlds, air and water. Kenya and London. I didn’t quite fit in and connect with London like I usually did. Something was missing. I longed to laugh and really mean it. To fill my body with endorphins that would lift me up, soaring like a weightless bubble, floating on an ephemeral but exhilarating high. I wanted to avoid the sympathetic, concerned gaze from colleagues and non-Kenyan friends who sought my analytical rant on the shocking images and sounds that poured into their living rooms. I just wanted to be. To feel and not to have to put words to what I was feeling. And with time I noticed that surrounded by British accents, red double-decker buses and wool winter coats in determined, urgent stride, I had become somewhat detached from the escalating body count. I stared at the various shapes that formed numbers on my computer screen, unable to comprehend or imagine how each and every single one was being buried and mourned for in a Kenyan home. I also started to react like some of my non-Kenyan friends did when I was in Kenya - making calls or sending text messages to enquire after the people I love, having watched or read chilling BBC news reports that felt so close to home. It is home.

The SMS.

I awoke one morning to a simple yet poignant text message from a dear friend in Nairobi that declared, “Kenya is dying”. Just like that. Raw and piercing. No how are you? No niceties. No sugar-coating. Like a true friend. Those 3 words grabbed hold of me by the shoulders and shook me, releasing me from my self-imposed prison. I felt my body resonate with the vibrations of my pounding heart as I subconsciously drew in long, hurried, deep breaths into my rising and falling chest. Rising and falling. Rising and falling. It was my moment of truth and barefaced honesty. The time to face my demons. My demons are really myself... Fairytale Kenya no longer lives here. I have now allowed it. The emotions, the feelings, the thoughts, the fear, the disappointment, the anger, the unanswered questions sit with me. They rise through my being, drifting upwards like tendrils of smoke, flowing freely like a river that is powered by an unseen force. They reside within me and all over me. I can feel them on my skin as goosebumps and sitting underneath the domed spaces of my arched arm hairs. I can taste them in my mouth as they slide on my moist malleable tongue, forming syllables that are carried by the vibrations in my voicebox, making sounds that merge and collide to form coherent, articulated words.

What is more important – my career or my country? Everything is a choice. Not choosing is a choice.

For a person who thought I was living by a decent set of values, constantly challenging my perceptions of the world and broadening my outlook, and sometimes irritating those close to me with my idealist views, the saddening and depressing state of affairs in Kenya has greatly humbled me.

What am I willing to give up for my country?

This episode in Kenya has given me a renewed and deeper sense of utmost revered respect and gratitude to Kenya’s fallen, largely forgotten heroes. Men and women who put aside their children, their spouses, their friends and gave all they had – their lives – so that I could grow up in post-independence Kenya. So that I may never know what it is like to pay allegiance to the monarch of a distant, foreign land. So that I may have full rights in the land that my ancestors from a number of communities trode upon and eventually nourished with their decomposing flesh. The earth that now feeds me. So that I may have the choice of where I would live. So that I may vote for my leaders. I have since dismounted from my anti-colonialism high horse as Kenyans are violating some of these rights as they attack, oppress and kill fellow Kenyans.

As the tears silently glide their way downwards, my windswept face their only witness, in stark contrast to the loud, unruly thoughts that fill my grey matter, the question I ask myself now is what can I do that is meaningful for Kenya seeing as I have chosen to stay here?


Anonymous said...

Although not a writer, I am on a Kenya writers emailing group, most of whom are based in Kenya and some on it have referred disparagingly to those who are living overseas, which I think is unfair, most of them did their time overseas and this is a form of censorship. Look at it this way, if someone earning 8,000/= a month leaves Kenya to work as a nurse in the UK, this will be totally accepted as economic migration. But, when someone on the higher end of the income scale or more educated leaves Kenya, for whatever reasons, they are a sell out. It is such hypocrisy.

And, the reasons given, that we can not postulate on the situation are, in my opinion, baseless. Most people writing on Kenya are not getting their information first hand. In fact in the earlier days of this year, I was getting more information from someone in the UK than people were getting in Kenya because of the media blackout. I get pissed off when people think guys overseas are over reacting when they send texts enquiring about people’s safety because of stuff they’ve seen on TV. It’s partly because people in Nairobi are so cocooned that they don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Just because people are in the UK doesn’t mean they have made a choice and are not helping the situation, because many upper middle class people in Kenya are not doing anything either. Its like Uganda during Idi Amin where people, to this day, disparage ‘ the ones who left’ because ‘us we stayed.’

The fact of the matter is that much writing is a bourgeois armchair activity that helps no one except occupy the people who have the time and the means to read it. I’ve only seen one piece [Islands of Hope by Citizens Pathway Group] that actually answers in a small way the question most people like us need answered which is what we can do. Other than donate money and tie foolish flowers to things.

Anonymous said...

You have a great blog - and blogging is activism - so telling people about your thoughts and feelings is as good as demonstrating.

I'm not sure what I can suggest that isn't just a platitude about what you can do about the awful situation whilst living in the UK.... Even if you were home in Kenya would you be able to do much there either? It's really difficult - to suggest anything with that much chaos going on.

As you know I split up from my Rwandan partner last year I suppose if I learnt anything from being with her for a few years I learnt how much help it gave her to feel like she made a difference (and she really has made a difference to many peoples lives in Kigali). After all she questioned why she survived the atrocities there when so many did not. And for you - well you are left questioning your situation abroad when all this is affecting the lives of so many people you know - it can't be easy.

My one small piece of advice is about about timing and opportunity - There are people you know here and around the world that can make a difference and can work together. Perhaps there is something more concrete you can help with than publicising the atrocities that are befalling Kenya and the time to do something different like that may not be just now. For my ex this started a nearly a decade after the genocide. She found a way to bring communities together - through helping street children - Hutu or Tutsi - as much as directly helping the children she found a mechanism to find a way to bring a neutral and common focus to solve shared issues across 'ethnic' or perhaps more accurately community divisions.

I think people (outside of Kenya) need to understand more – know more about the complexity of the situation. I guess that means understanding that this isn't just a 'tribal' or 'ethnic' issue like I have heard and read of in so much of the press. It involves the history of colonialisation and post colonialisation - poverty - maybe like in Rwanda the subtext of colonial eugenics. It's more than the growing pains of democracy – a patronising view that I have heard from some diplomats interviewed. Most importantly it's about hearing of the suffering going on. Better understanding can only help to get the politicians to talk to each other.

I just wanted to let you know that I care about what's happening in Kenya - The views of Kenyans abroad is an important perspective to hear........ So thanks for your blog.

Sci-culturist said...

@ annonymous 1 - thanks for your elaborate comment. i have noticed some "tension" between the diaspora and those living at home. but i think this only diverts attention from the important issues.
i dont entirely agree that writing is a waste of time because it is also a means of documentation and a potential platform for debate (as we are doing right now). however, yes, it would be ideal that the writing leads to meaningful action. would be good to carry on this conversation in real time over a cuppa.

Sci-culturist said...

@ anonymous 2 - thanks for sharing your personal account. and for showing your support with your valuable advice about timing and opportunity which goes deeper than words...